May 19, 2021
Expanding your fishing boundaries is not for scaredy-cats and sissies. It takes guts to try to learn about a different species or a difficult technique. Whether it’s a first foray into fly fishing or learning to identify deep structure on your electronics, new frontiers are difficult.
But there’s a special level of hell reserved for those wanting to learn about musky fishing.
The so-called “fish of 10,000 casts” comes by its name honestly. Adherents to the cult celebrate follows and musky mirages. I heard of one seasoned guide on a famous water who once went 24 days during prime season without catching a fish. Even under the best of circumstances, muskies are evil.
Yet their cultists are many, and from what I can tell they’re more obsessed than your average walleye troller, perch jerker or bass flipper. After bass addict friends got their first taste of them, they raved about it, which made me want to at least give it a shot. But you don’t just dip a toe into the musky world. It’s not a short-term commitment. No fruity umbrella drinks will be served. Instead, you’re introduced to a world marked by frustration. I went into it willingly, and while my subsequent indoctrination was marked by bouts of angst, ultimately, I believe I did it the right way.
On the recommendations of multiple people more knowledgeable than myself, I headed to Lake St. Clair—a fishery where multiple hookups per day are not unusual—for my baptism by fire. To up my chances, I booked trips with a guide service run by Spencer Berman , a past Professional Muskie Tournament Trail (PMTT) champ. But if I thought his crew was going to hand me the magic ticket to musky greatness, I was sadly mistaken, and I realized that fact when I was handed a 9-foot rod with a lure called the “Pounder.” If Detroit’s potholed roads hadn’t destroyed my back and shoulders already, then throwing that 16-ounce lure in rolling waves would finish the job. And there would be no breaks—not only does Berman’s crew fish sun-up to sun-down, but unlike bass fishing where you can mail in your concentration for a cast or two, in musky fishing the one cast you failed to pay attention would be the one where Big Toothy would make you look foolish.
And to compound the misery, I brought company. My wife, not knowing any better, wanted a piece of the action.
On that first trip, we blanked until the end of the last day, when I caught a 37-inch tiger musky, the bastard stepchild of St. Clair’s real trophies. Then we went back. I caught two more—real muskies this time—but she blanked again. I felt like I was playing with house money, but I couldn’t do anything more than put her in position to experience success. Apparently, she’s a glutton for punishment (“I married you, didn’t I?” she’d likely ask rhetorically), because not only did she plead to go back for trip number three, when I might’ve been satisfied to do something else, but when Spencer offered her the option to tap out and use a less-demanding lure, she asked a simple question: “What lure will put me in the best position to catch a musky?” Spencer glanced down at the Pounder. The issue was settled without another word.
A few hours into the day, her rod loaded up, and despite three trips of pent-up frustration caused by the evil toothy critters, she calmly and expertly played her tormentor to the boat and into the net.
Then another, this one a tiger musky.
Then, late in the day as Spencer deftly worked us down a grass line abutting a channel edge, she hooked up and landed a third musky. Three in one day, maybe not legendary by St. Clair standards, but exceptional by just about any measure—and because it had taken her three trips, not just a personal triumph, but an opportunity to exhale. She might’ve even grabbed a snack.
The catches were gratifying, but thinking back on our St. Clair journey, it establishes a template for expansion into other species and techniques. When you want to broaden your fishing footprint, consider the following:
1. Go Where They Live
Simply put, you’re going to farm a few or miss a few at the beginning. Within reason and your budget, go to the best waters at the best times. While I’m sure Green Bay and the St. Lawrence can be fantastic musky fisheries, we needed to be someplace where the odds were stacked in our favor.
2. Enlist The Help of Someone Better than You
Hire a guide, and find the best guide based on objective criteria—someone who is a teacher as well as an angler. This will also ensure that you have the proper equipment. If you cannot afford a guide, find a mentor through some other means.
3. Ask the Dumb Questions
Would I have caught fish earlier with Spencer’s crew if I’d asked more questions or sought out more instruction? Possibly. I’m sure there was a percentage of casts that I wasted early on because I didn’t know the right retrieve or had some sort of other hitch in my presentation. Try different things but focus on the hows and whys until something clicks.
4. Prepare Yourself Physically
I had no idea that we’d be throwing 16-ounce lures. After the first day of it, I woke up virtually crippled because my form had been terrible. A slight adjustment made it comparatively effortless and painless, but it’s still physically demanding. So is wading in a raging trout stream. So is fighting yellowfin tuna. Be in shape or a fish will prove to you that you’re not. Getting good demands long days and that’s hard on the body.
5. Keep After It
The inclination when something is tough can be to give up on it. Musky fishing, like many other types of angling is challenging. Someone once told me that catching fish is like opening a jar of pickles – getting the first one out is tough, but each one after that is easier. It’s no coincidence that my wife caught a total of three on the day she caught her first musky. She’d figured out a system and a cadence and dialed it in. That’s the satisfying part of the toughest forms of angling—once you get going, success often snowballs. Then there’s no looking back.